Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

There's a Word for It (or Soon Will Be)

Here's a little thought experiment: let's say you've been invited as a dinner guest to my house and you are particularly impressed with one dish I have served, one you've never tasted before. You ask me what it is and I say it's called ghallipkorz. That's an approximate spelling — what I actually say is something like /ɣɘɬɪpkȏʀz/. You're so taken with the dish (and by the way, you're a food writer for a national newspaper) that you write about ghallipkorz in your column the next day, and by the end of the week, /ɣɘɬɪpkȏʀz/ (the word, not the dish) is on the lips of celebrities, politicians, restaurateurs, and chat show hosts. After the weekend, major dictionaries update their online versions with the new word, complete with its proper pronunciation.

What's wrong with this picture? Quite a lot, and you can say that with certainty even if you don't have a PhD in linguistics. For one, we all know that words don't catch on this fast. Number two: words that require phonemes that are not part of a language's standard set don't find acceptance in that language. At a minimum, they must be shoehorned into a pronunciation that native speakers would consider normal, and if they don't lend themselves to that treatment, chances of finding a foothold in English are minimal. Think about Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano in Iceland that paralyzed European air traffic in 2010. For most people, it never became more than “that volcano in Iceland” and today probably less than one percent of people could reproduce one syllable of it. Number three, dictionary editors adhere to a standard, somewhat conservative process in deciding whether a new word can join the ranks of the anointed ones that enjoy the status of headword in their publications.

Long ago in the Lounge we briefly explored the dignified and stately process through which new words, when they achieve a respectable degree of circulation, receive the imprimatur of a dictionary definition. Let's call that the front end of lexicon development and expansion. The back end of that process — in which speakers introduce or innovate additions to the language that then gain circulation — is a little more difficult to document: even today in the Internet age, tracing the origins of linguistic innovation is a sleuth's game and it's a subject that intrigues linguists.

Today researchers are trying to bring more light to the process by which people create, learn and use new words. Wordovators, a collaborative project of Northwestern University in the U.S. and the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, is looking into the subject. Janet Pierrehumbert, professor of linguistics at Northwestern, says "We are taking a fresh look at the whole idea of a word. We think about words as things that are alive and that reproduce when people learn them and use them." The professor's organic-lexical metaphor is not new and the parallels that exist between language and reproduction biology have supplied, and continue to supply, many helpful and illuminating analogies.

Recent research suggests that this fertile field of analogy is not coincidental: it is now claimed that the emergence of human language is the most recent of a small number of highly significant evolutionary transitions in the history of life on earth. Why? Because language enables an entirely new system for information transmission: human culture. Language uniquely supports heredity of cultural information, allowing our species to develop a unique kind of open-ended adaptability. The nuts and bolts of how this happens, however, are only now beginning to be explored.

The Wordovators Project draws specifically on analogies between biodiversity and language diversity. People know an enormous number of words. New words continually arise as people modify and recombine parts of existing words — much as new biological species arise through evolution.

One approach to understanding the process that leads to a novel word being accepted in the lexicon has been explored and reported here before — in this interview with Dr. Allan Metcalf, author of Predicting New Words. The Wordovators Project will draw much more heavily on large-scale experiments. How is that going to work? It would be unwieldy and uncertain at best to attempt to create the conditions for a new word to emerge and then see if you can get early-adopting speakers to cooperate, so Wordovators will use mathematical modeling and other Internet-age resources to try to pin down how the word innovation process works. The Wordovators website currently has two GWAPs available for people to play, as well as an experiment that is open anyone registered as a mechanical Turk worker.

We've talked about GWAPs (Games With A Purpose) in the Lounge before, specifically about Google Image Labeler (here) and Wordrobe (here). A well-designed GWAP is a win-win: fun for the players, and valuable for the data it provides for the creators. GWAPs are a natural development arising from the convergence of several phenomena: the penchant that people have for amusement and diversion, the broadly-based interconnectivity that the Internet makes possible, and the need of researchers to acquire useful data that is not prohibitively expensive. What do the designers of Wordovators hope to learn from the data that their games will provide? Their ultimate goal is unabashedly lofty: to discover the fundamental mechanisms that support the complexity of the lexicon in human languages.

To return for a moment to ghallipkorz, we all probably have an instinctive notion, even if we've never articulated it before, about how a putative new word might succeed in a language: it has to be pronounceable and consistent with the language's sound patterns and prosody; it has to somehow “sound” right — in other words, it has to match the thing it stands for in a way that other words already in the language match the similar things that they stand for; it can't encroach too obviously or fully in form or in meaning on a word already in the language, but at the same time it helps a new word to have some pieces that are found in other words; and there has to be a genuine and enduring need for the new word. These many criteria make it fairly easy for all of us to spot from a mile away a word that would stand little chance of acceptance, but the subtle ways by which new words do find acceptance has not been well explored empirically, and that's what Wordovators sets out to do.

At the same time that the Internet makes possible a large-scale project like Wordovators, we probably shouldn't lose sight of the ways in which the Internet changes the way we use and view language and new words. The notion that words even need “the imprimatur of a dictionary definition” to gain acceptance today needs reexamining. Those who think of a dictionary as an authoritative book are ever decreasing in number; more who will know it mainly as a helpful but not necessarily authoritative Internet-based service are born every minute. So the dynamics of word acceptance today are more fluid and volatile than in the past, and they will probably remain that way.


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday October 1st 2013, 1:42 AM
Comment by: David M. (Cardiff United Kingdom)
Great article. Thanks.

My current interest is in the adoption of words from other languages that we have an affinity towards and simply use them, as and when the opportunity arises, i.e. the internet has given us this access, supported by online translators, etc. This practice is quite widespread and as such adoption of words into ones vocabulary is growing rapidly.
Tuesday October 1st 2013, 8:47 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
David: I have noticed this as well and would have addressed it if space permitted. Some languages--especially Spanish in the US and French in the UK--have a "safe conduct" into English and regularly slip in words with little change. It seems to be viewed as acceptable, even desirable, to pronounce such words with some degree of authenticity, whereas this is rarely the case with more distant languages.
Tuesday October 1st 2013, 10:06 AM
Comment by: Jan S. (Brookline, MA)
I hope your unusual dish has garlic in it. If so, it will soon be widely known as "garlickers" and will be on the lips and breath of foodies (a fairly new word) and pundits (only 200 years old in English) far and wide.
Tuesday October 1st 2013, 10:56 AM
Comment by: Sandra L.
Thanks for this interesting article! I've listened to the The Teaching Company courses on the development of human language generally and English specifically, which evermore changed my level of acceptance for other people's ways of speaking English
. I'm particularly aware of what seems like an exponential increase in the pace of language change with the rise of the Internet. As our modes of communication change, we seem to be rapidly adapting our use of language. (Too long for a tweet? Innovate!) This whole subject is fascinating! Thanks for the new insights!
Tuesday October 1st 2013, 12:15 PM
Comment by: Rahla L.
Thanks for the word on words. Several years back, we were at our granddaughter's graduation from the Univ of Tampa, and the word on everyone's lips was "ginormous". I thought this was just the latest in what we used to call hep lingo. Bigger than giant. More huge than enormous. Guess what --- ginormous turned up in Webster a couple of years later. Who'd a thunk it. Guess our language is still living, breathing and growing.
Tuesday October 1st 2013, 8:40 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
One thing that helps a new word spread in the language is the perceived coolness of the source. Though the white majority culture in the US has often shown disdain (and worse) for black culture, many white people from the 19th century until now have been fascinated by, enjoyed, and taken up new words they've heard from African-American sources.

Jazz, hep, hip, jive, reet, bebop all come from black music. Dig, square, Daddy-o, cool, and chill got new meanings in black slang. "'Sup?" comes from the hip-hop world.

Similarly many Yiddishisms--putz and schnook, for two--have become common in American English because they sounded attractively funny to Gentile Americans.

People take up new words not only because they are useful, but also because they get a kick out of them.
Wednesday October 2nd 2013, 8:37 AM
Comment by: John P.
Your article brings to mind another blues clues question who's origins are not so obscure.

Who reshapes the pronunciation of a word and for what end does a word go from Potato to Potato?

My laic theory put forth is your basic stratum.

NPR influenced heavily by there British high - crowned counterparts spin forth mispronunciations like feathers strewn from a doves demise.

With the intent to sort-out those who are part of the less fortunate stratum.

I still enjoy saying "prezentation"...instead of "pre-zentation". With the purposeful intent of denying the self ordained noblesse wordgods their power to segregate the common with the very common.

-Amen Science Friday
Friday October 4th 2013, 6:58 PM
Comment by: mark M. (NJ)
your getting there just add a little color and see what happens
Sunday October 6th 2013, 12:25 PM
Comment by: Victoria W. (Princeton, NJ)
As Hargraves suggests, humans create new words all the time. And some of the current examples are disturbing. A blog post stimulated by this excellent article: http://www.vweisfeld.com/?p=972
Thursday October 31st 2013, 11:07 PM
Comment by: Claudia G. (Minneapolis, MN)
One of the most relevant sources of linguistic innovation is language contact. The more connected we are, the faster we'll need to adopt words from other languages and cultures (it is indeed a real necessity once cultures come into contact). One of the most fascinating -and rarest- aspects of this unavoidable process is the transfer of grammatical features from one language to another. I have recently noticed an increase in the use of the words "Chicana" and "Latina", in English, both as a feminine noun and as a feminine adjective. Since English hasn't differentiated gender in nouns and adjectives for many centuries now, this is a really major linguistic change, which could have a much more radical influence on English than simple lexical transfer.
Tuesday December 2nd, 4:35 AM
Comment by: David M. (Cardiff United Kingdom)
Just a passing thought: We speak English in our country/area but in our idiom, 'artistic style'
Tuesday December 9th, 11:18 AM
Comment by: David M. (Cardiff United Kingdom)
Re. Last comment: America and England are good example, i.e. we both speak English but 'spell' differently. Africa much '''worse''' (I'm biased of course!)

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